Combining food and photography in equally radical measures, Joel Serra’s Modern Spanish Kitchen tells the story of how a wild blonde kid from New Zealand found his way back to Spain to discover his Catalan roots. Surreal photography, original recipes and personal anecdotes come together to form a book full of delicious chaos.
His first cookbook brings a vibrant, fresh approach to traditional Spanish dishes and all eighty delicious recipes offer both a beginner’s guide to eating and drinking like a local in Barcelona and Spain as well as plenty of inspiration for those looking to experiment.
As Joel says, ‘Food is not what you cook, but what you make others taste.’
We had a chance to meet up with him while in Barcelona, and discussed on what Joel’s Modern Spanish Kitchen is all about.
You’ve started Papalosophy, an agency that helps launch chef brands and collaborate with food creatives to produce spectacular gourmet content and events. What inspired Papalosophy?
I think every artist (and I include chefs in this category) have their own very distinct way of looking at and interpreting the world, their own philosophy, and Papalosophy is mine. Papalosophy represents my energetic and ‘raw’ style combined with sometimes surreal style and this is present in all of my creative endeavours (food, events and writing). Because I believe that food is not what you cook, but what you make others taste.
Your Papalosophy events hosted at your rooftop supper club and on your global popup tour look spectacular. What has been the most inspirational and interesting event you’ve hosted?
I’ve had the honour of cooking with creatives from all over the world including DJs, painters, singers and dancers. I think the most memorable was on a beach in Dubrovnik, Croatia. I hosted the event with several other amazing chefs and we produced a Caribbean menu with umbrella-topped cocktails and a fiery atmosphere (we literally cooked on fire!
Did growing up in Tasmania, Australia also influence your style of cooking? How?
I grew up wild on an idealistic almost self-sufficient farm and this ‘rawness’ and respect and love for nature is fundamental to how I cook (and live). My cooking is makes basic produce the star of the meal and I jump at every opportunity to interact with nature – hunting mushrooms and rabbits, picking purple artichokes and green almonds, and diving for thick tentacled octopus. Tasmania made me fearless everything I do comes from this mindset.
The photography in your cookbook, Joel Serra’s Modern Spanish Kitchen, plays such an intriguing role in the book. How did the idea behind the surreal images/photos come about?
Collaborating with rockstar photographer Aldo Chacon (and one of my best friends) on the cookbook made for some extreme and crazy visuals. As it was my first cookbook, every shoot was chaos! We never planned properly and instead I simply bought several bags of ingredients then we sat around drinking coffees coming up with ideas like bowling watermelons, turning baby calamari into gloves, dotting the beach with tomatoes and jamming a salmon tail in the Barcelona subway doors. Living in Barcelona and surrounding myself with inspiration from artists like Dali, Magritte, Hunter S. Thompson and Ferran Adria, made for an alternative view of food, and the world, and I hope this perspective comes across in the book and everything I do.
While discovering your Catalan roots through food, what dish has been the most interesting to learn and cook?
Catalan food is really deep and I felt an ancestral obligation to learn the basics and innovate from there. The first recipe I ever learnt was how to make alioli (garlic, salt and oil – nothing more, nothing less). Just like Julia Child was known for her French Beef Burgeunoin, I day dream about Catalonia’s thick suquet de peix (a seafood stew with over 20 components and rich with smoked paprika and briny seafood). My addition is a spoon of nutty romesco salsa during the cooking process to bulk up the flavour and give the texture a creaminess. Even though winters are short in Barcelona, when it does get cold, this is my comfort food and I’ll happily spend an entire day making suquet a reality.
What was the most important for you to convey in this cookbook. What makes this book unique?
I started writing the cookbook from my flat in London, looking at to grey skies dreaming about Spanish sunshine and I wanted to produce one single cookbook that contained all the basics of this wonderful cuisine. But this is a cookbook with more than recipes, it tells my story growing up in Tasmania then making the move to Spain, and finally it is a surreal and spectacular visual interpretation of the recipes, shot by the super-talented LA-based Aldo Chacon, that convey my passion and slightly alternative way of cooking, eating and everything in between.
Finally, what is next for you in your career?
I am really enjoying producing different events around the world and have some exciting popups planned. I am also leading the chef community for VizEat (an online platform of the best immersive food experiences around the word). And there is always room to write another book or maybe shoot a video series. As long as I can continue to make life delicious in and out of the kitchen!